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NRC plans review as focus turns to nuclear fuel storage

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is set to launch "systematic" scrutiny of U.S. plants, where there's nearly 100 tons of spent radioactive fuel.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to do a "systematic and methodical" review of U.S. nuclear facilities following the onset of the crisis earlier this month in Japan.

The NRC said today that it will study information from the situation in Japan--where a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunamis provoked a dangerous situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility--and conduct an assessment of nuclear power plants in the U.S. There will be a rapid, 90-day review and a longer review which could include regulatory action, according to reports.

"We have a high degree of confidence that at our 104 nuclear reactors there is an adequate basis to ensure adequate protection," Bill Borchardt, executive director for operations at the NRC, said at a Commission meeting, according to a report at E2 Wire.

Dry cask storage puts spent fuel assemblies are entombed in steel and concrete.
Dry cask storage entombs spent fuel assemblies in steel and concrete. NRC

The review comes at a time of growing concern over nuclear disasters in the U.S. and renewed calls to improve the safety of spent fuel from nuclear facilities. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, the spent fuel pools have emerged as one of the gravest dangers because they are not stored in metal and thick concrete structures as the reactors are.

In the U.S., there are under 100 tons of spent fuel stored at power plants, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. After they have been used to generate heat in the reactor, fuel is kept in pools of water that contain the radiation. Water is also circulated to remove the residual heat from the assemblies, which hold the nuclear fuel rods, for several years.

Because there isn't a central repository in the U.S. for storing spent nuclear fuel, many nuclear plants have a lot of spent nuclear fuel on site. The Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire, for example, had space for 20 years worth of spent fuel storage in pools but then needed to build a dry cask storage facility on site. The nuclear waste is covered in steel and concrete.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which released a report citing safety lapses at U.S. nuclear plants last week, noted that storing fuel in dry casks, rather than in pools, is safer from errors, natural disasters, and attacks.

"UCS has long recommended that spent fuel be transferred from the pool to dry cask storage once the fuel has cooled enough, after about five years. This is a major issue in the U.S. because U.S. pools are becoming increasingly packed with spent fuel," said Lisbeth Gronlund, the co-director of the global security program, in a blog post yesterday.

In particular, plant designs where nuclear fuel is stored above ground have come under fire. Massachusetts state attorney general Martha Coakley yesterday put out a statement pressing the NRC to review the spent fuel at two New England nuclear power plants--Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim. The Seabrook Power Plant was not subject of the complaint because it has below-grade storage.